Mysteries continue to surround Google barge as it prepares to leave Maine

The Google barge, which has been in Portland since last fall, has been moved to Turner Island Terminal in South Portland.
The Google barge, which has been in Portland since last fall, has been moved to Turner Island Terminal in South Portland. Buy Photo
Posted July 31, 2014, at 1:14 p.m.
Last modified July 31, 2014, at 5:43 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — With just days to go before the famed Google barge leaves Portland harbor, just as much mystery surrounds the structure as when it arrived in October.

Roger Hale, owner of the Turner Island LLC terminal in South Portland, confirmed on Thursday that the barge bearing the blockish space-age building was moved by tugboats across the Fore River to his facility on Wednesday. But not for long.

“Maybe a week or so,” said Hale. “We have to install some safety apparatus, prepare it for an ocean voyage.”

An ocean voyage? To where?

“I don’t know where it’s going,” he said. “I don’t even know who’s towing it.”

For the previous nine months, the structure was kept at the Rickers Wharf Marine Facility in Portland, where contractor Cianbro acknowledged it was doing work on it but never what that work consisted of.

The barge and building, property assessed by the city of Portland to be worth $40 million, had been owned by a company called By and Large, which an investigation by the technology publication CNET determined to be affiliated with Google.

Hale said that has changed, but he said he couldn’t say any more.

“I’m not at liberty to say [who bought it], but yes, it has been purchased,” he said.

The secrecy surrounding the vessel recalls the shroud of mystery under which it arrived. Last fall, public speculation about the peculiar building ran wild, with theories emerging that it was everything from a floating prison to a futuristic movie set.

Much of the drama played out on the West Coast as well, where on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, another almost identical barge building was being constructed.

Eventually, Google publicly admitted the buildings were being developed as interactive spaces where people could learn about new technologies. Then followed a San Francisco Chronicle report — citing a confidential construction budget — clarifying further that the vessels would be $35 million “floating retail stores” to help attract buzz for Google Glass, the heavily anticipated spectacles that have little computer displays embedded in them.

In a companion piece to the Chronicle story he co-wrote, reporter Phil Matier told San Francisco CBS affiliate KPIX Google is planning to permanently place what would be a total of three floating retail stores in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.

Whether the “ocean voyage” Hale said his crews are preparing the Maine structure for could be a trip down the Atlantic to the Big Apple, he couldn’t say on Thursday.

The city of Portland received a financial boost from the barge’s time at Rickers Wharf, however.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin confirmed that the city collected $400,000 in personal property taxes from the vessel for its time in Portland.

She said the structure’s owners actually were exempt from paying such taxes under the state’s Business Equipment Tax Exemption, but that the state reimbursed the city for 50 percent of the value, resulting in a payment amount equal to $400,000.

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